Cavalcade of Bad Boy Flameouts

It might seem like the Media Information Vortex loves bad boys, but where are Mel Gibson, Christopher Lee, and other Johnny Flameouts now? Eric Dezenhall reports.

03.04.11 12:29 AM ET

Television’s Ward Cleaver once said about the squeaky-clean neighbor kid Eddie Haskell, “He’s so polite, it’s almost un-American.”

Cleaver succinctly expressed the paradoxical nature of Bad Boy-ism in our culture: We pretend to disapprove, but aggressively reward it. Until we don’t.

Consider the recent adventures of our Johnny Flameouts: Charlie Sheen, John Galliano, Mel Gibson, and Congressmen David Wu and Christopher Lee.

The central pathology of these scandals is data. Lots of data: Sheen self-immolates on television in regular intervals; Galliano swooned over Hitler before a cell phone camera; Gibson’s verbal eruption against his estranged girlfriend is all on tape; Wu’s erratic behavior included sending photos of himself in a fuzzy tiger get-up; and the married Lee sent a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he was chasing online.

Old scandals were driven largely by innuendo, not proof. They were often covered up or denied. In the absence of evidence, party on.

In an age of infinite data, the irony is that we are not suffering from overload, but underload. The Information Vortex intrinsically hungers for more. The very suggestion that we can’t have more is met with indignation, along with hints that our rights have been somehow violated.

The media understand this, which is why many peddle the damage control canard that if their targets just “come clean” their problems would go away. In most cases, these grotesque confessions are good for the press and consumer public, not Johnny Flameout. Afterward, there is rarely satisfaction, just final proof that Johnny Flameout is a reprobate.

The insatiable thirst for data goes two ways. Not only does the Information Vortex demand it, Johnny Flameout needs his fix, too. The very same scandal target who gaudily yearns to be left alone checks his Google alerts every five minutes to ensure that his hits are going up, not down, and that nothing’s ended up in the spam folder.

Hollywood publicists, for whom Keeping the Client is scripture, often feed this syndrome by counseling Johnny Flameout that his MORE ME mantra is indeed the cure for, like, everything.

Things may be changing, however, as corporate chiefs rethink Johnny Flameout’s operating fallacy, which is that his problem is fundamentally one of public relations, which is like saying that a house engulfed in flames is in need of new paint. Well, yes, but…

Discussions of meltdowns inevitably point to external factors such as drug abuse or bi-polar mental illness, as if the problem is some kind of bacteria. It isn’t, it’s largely congenital to the system that produced Johnny Flameout.

Sheen’s publicist, Stan Rosenfield, fired him this week, (although it wasn’t termed that way). Good for him. He shrewdly recognized that the cavalcade of pre-Vortex flacks offering bromides about contrition and having “Oprah’s people on speed-dial” are becoming laughing stocks in boardrooms. There are new physics at work here and old schmoozers haven’t got the antidote.

The Information Vortex presents huge problems for one of the oldest realities of the celebrity racket: Personality-driven industries have historically bonused outrageous behavior. This inverted morality creates maniacs whose antics are referenced with a smile and a wink, not a harrumph. (Unless you are a woman. Male spectacles are dudes being dudes and may be conscionably encouraged. Female spectacles are unstable and must be stopped.)

Sheen has been “punished” over the years with a steady stream of movie and TV deals and a conveyor belt of women, alternatively beautiful, talented – and, of late, really, really oogie. Sheen doesn’t see red lights on the dashboard. Outrageousness PAYS. Until it doesn’t.

For Sheen, serial substance abuse and the occasional discharge of a firearm against a strong-willed woman are forgivable, but declaring war on one’s primetime show runner isn’t. For Galliano, nearly all forms of over-the-top behavior were built into the designer’s stock price, but it’s ill-advised to be a Third Reich groupie in the schmatte business.

Guys like Sheen have been riding the bubble throughout their careers, but the needles are getting sharper with every new line of bandwidth. Still, contrary to many prognostications, the jig isn’t up yet.

For answers, aspiring Johnny Flameout shouldn’t look toward Madison Avenue dream peddlers, but toward rock 'n' roll, specifically pre-Vortex legend Keith Richards.

Richards, at the depths of his drug-fueled romp through the culture, was also a high-functioning professional music executive. He wrote the Stones’ legendary riffs and a bulk of their lyrics (the latter with Mick Jagger). The guy showed up. For a half century. And still does.

In his heyday, Richards had an eerily clinical and meticulous approach to drug use, a backhanded compliment to be sure. He was also a largely monogamous romantic who has been clean for decades, slyly playing up his druggie shtick for merchandizing purposes. Keef, no Ward Cleaver by his own admission, has been with the same woman for 30 years. And the dude is cool enough that he can live in Connecticut.

Richards was in on his own joke. Sheen, Galliano, and Gibson I’m not sure about. Keef outlived his outrageousness to write a superb autobiography, absent of grandiose self-celebration, where he got to define himself and his era.

Endurance is damage control at its best. So, Johnny Flameout, if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.

Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His book, Damage Control, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises. His forthcoming novel, The Devil Himself will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in July.